Saturday, February 26, 2011

First, Do No Harm.

C'mon Obama, get with the program. At least instruct your guy Kerlokowski to focus on harm reduction rather than bullying the editorial boards of local newspapers.

Is There a Trojan Horse in Wisconsin?

I'm not much of a fan of conspiracy theories. So the conspiratorial part of this article isn't really the point to me. However, there's a little piece of Wisconsin's contentious budget bill that may be even worse for the people of Wisconsin than busting the unions: the potential sale of state owned power plants, without any public input or oversight:

begins on the bottom of page 23:

44. 16.896 of the statutes is created to read:
16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the
department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may
contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without
solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best
interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or
certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to
purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is
considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification
of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).

The fight over Senate Bill 11 is not about the money. It's about who controls the future of Wisconsin, and it seems clear Governor Walker doesn't intend for it to be the people of Wisconsin.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Turn It Upside Down

Over the past generation, we've heard over and over again about how people pay too much in taxes, how it cripples the economy and productivity, and how in a free society we ought to be able to spend our money how we want.

I think it's time, as we enter into serious discussions about the role and scope of government for a new era, that we turn this argument on it's head. Let's get real about what we want government to do, the services we expect it to perform (libraries? public schools? parks? police? firefighters and emergency responders?), and figure out how to pay for it. There are no doubt extras we don't need and efficiencies to be found, but I think most folks would like government's role to be what it has been, for the most part: creating the infrastructure and context in which people of all means and backgrounds can have great opportunity to live fulfilling lives. If we are going to do this, we must realize that it's time to pay for it... and that all of us get much more for our taxes than anyone would care to admit.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Difference a President Makes

Yes, there are contradictions. Yes, there are still many problems to be confronted. But in case you were wondering about the difference between a center-right president and a right-of-right-wing president, here you have a good illustration:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Obama's Tax Cut Position: A Strategic Retreat

This post was begun on December 7, 2010, before the tiff between Obama and some progressives reached its conclusion. Interestingly, we have not heard much yet this year from progressives with regard to tax policy and moving the economy forward. It would seem now is a good time to draw the terms of debate in more progressive terms. Perhaps, though, the progressives in Congress are plumb worn out from their fight last year.

Here we go again, fighting amongst ourselves over which battles to fight. I really don't think this is the right time, although as progressives band together and fight for a better deal, I wonder whether I'm right.

I really agree with President Obama that we need to have a detailed discussion of what our national priorities are going forward, and how we're going to pay for them. We need to update and streamline the tax system and make it more progressive. We need to look at our educational system, from Kindergarten to post graduate, and how to allow access to a decent education and opportunities for everyone. We need to discuss how to approach our looming environmental and energy crises. If we are going to dedicate resources toward our future, one that is just as well as comfortable, we need to delve into a whole host of issues that all our partisan wrangling has served to help us avoid. This cannot be done in a month.

If we spend the next month fighting for a different tax cut deal that includes the extension of unemployment benefits, and win, that's great, but then the really important discussion probably won't happen. The American people will think it's all been settled, and we'll once more have papered over a whole host of problems without discussing the real issues, and no one will have the interest or the energy for a national conversation starting next year.

On the other hand, I'm hearing progressives in congress like Representatives McDermott and Inslee, and Senator Bernie Sanders, say that if we just allow the cuts to expire then we go into the next session with a good negotiating position, since the Republicans have placed a lot of political capital on the idea of keeping the tax cuts for everyone, including the upper income brackets. I think this is a reasonable position, however, by going this route we put the extension of unemployment benefits at risk, which is both unjust and poor economic policy. And as I said, even if we did win that too, if we really pushed it and twisted some arms on both sides of the aisle, all that pushing and arm twisting has a price. We'll all be done by January, congratulating ourselves and glad we got the good deal, but it's still just a band aid.

I realize there won't be as many Democrats, in Congress next year, but it isn't that important. According to Gallup, most people in the U.S. think we ought to end the tax cuts on the top income earners, and some think we need to end all the tax cuts. The group thinking we need to end only the cuts at the top, however, is shrinking. And the reality is, there will need to be both spending cuts and tax increases in the future if we are going to balance the budget. Tax rates at all income levels are lower than they need to be if we want to pay for all the services people demand. We as a nation need to use the next two years to really dialogue and lay out our core values going forward. No one will get everything they want. Democrats and progressives need to get together and decide what is sacrosanct and where we're willing to compromise. This seems to be a weak point for the left in this country: every issue is the most important issue, and no issue can be compromised. We absolutely must look at the big picture right now and decide what three or four things will push us into the future in a way that allows democracy and opportunity to flourish. The first step, I think, is to let this deal go through, even as we hammer out our priorities in preparation for the battles ahead.

Throw the Bums Out: Negative Campaigning and the Deterioration of the Electorate

Of course a few political dramas have already happened since the election, but I've been thinking a lot about it and the dynamics of our political culture. I'm not going to pick apart the campaigns, or analyze the results and say it's a mandate, or it's not a mandate, or what the lessons are to be learned politically from the recent midterm elections. What I'm interested in are the lessons we can learn philosophically from the 2010 midterms, and from that point the practical implications can reveal themselves.

In my reading and listening to some analysis, and talking and thinking about the elections, I've had some revelations that I hope can help move our political culture toward a new place and begin rebuilding our national dialogue into something constructive instead of the fractious mess it's become.

Negative campaign ads have become a major fixture in politics over the past generation. There was a time when national campaign ads were halting, low budget affairs not much more sophisticated than the proverbial high school campaign speech. Those days are long gone, however, and since the advent of cable, the internet, and the 24 hour on demand news cycle, it takes a lot more than a talking head in front of a blue screen to get anyone's attention.

Enter negative campaign ads. They're sensational, attention grabbing, and seem to draw out the differences between candidates. Of course they're often also ludicrous, untruthful, and focused on irrelevancies like the Rand Paul "Aqua Buddha" controversy. Adding fuel to the already enormous fire, the Citizen's United decision handed down earlier this year struck down prohibitions on corporations (either for or non-profit) and unions issuing "electioneering communications", opening the floodgates and resulting in huge increases in political spending and advertising, much of it negative.

So, during the heat of a campaign, the electorate is treated to a non-stop onslaught of ads which basically say "do anything in the world except vote for that guy." There is less and less substance, less and less of "vote for me because", and more and more "not that guy". Such intense negativity prevents the development of constructive ideas about how we might address our myriad problems (deteriorating environment, high and persistent unemployment, stagnant wages, outdated infrastructure, poor public schools, mushrooming debt), and "we the people" are left with lots of resentful energy but very little actual information about which candidate would most reflect our values. This kind of climate not only breaks down our ability to discuss and decide issues thoughtfully, but it leads to a high level of dissatisfaction and distrust in government itself. Thus, in every election we "throw the bums out", and when those bums don't seem to be doing their job, we throw them out to make room for the next round.

At the same time, something interesting has happened with political strategy. The Republicans, playing to what they saw as their base, energized that "base" so well that a whole new group of folks has gotten involved in politics, blossoming into the Tea Party movement. Meanwhile (New) Democrats have been busy courting "swing" voters, trying to win over those elusive centrists who can never seem to make up their minds. Both strategies have led to electoral victories, leaving the pundits to argue endlessly over which strategy is better for a particular campaign. However, both strategies have also resulted in the two major parties losing their way philosophically, and neither party any longer seems to stand for anything much. This apparent lack of a strong belief system, a set of values which will not be compromised, has not only eroded the public's confidence but also damaged the ability of elected officials to govern and make policy.

This should, perhaps, come as no surprise. We have recently entered not only into a new century but a new millennium, which is often heralded by chaos and unrest. With the economic system having come dangerously close to collapse, and the long term survival of the natural environment as we know it in question, everything seems to be up for grabs. All these thoughts were roiling in my head when my mother sent me this article, about the drama of the baby boomers and how they visit it upon the rest of us. This sense of everything being up for grabs is not new: the peace and justice movements of the 60s and 70s, led by some of the same people now battling in the halls of Congress, led to things like Roe v. Wade, the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of schools. But one person's hard won victory is another person's devastating loss, and though many of us have thought of those battles as over and done, some of the folks who lost back then are back on the political stage demanding a do-over. The baby boomers argued bitterly over the meaning and direction of our United States of America back in their college days not only with their parents, but with each other, and now I believe we're witnessing those college arguments come back to life. Since the baby boom generation has come of age, though instead of playing out in the streets they're playing out on the radio waves, on television, and in the halls of Congress

So what's the answer to ending this absurd drama? I believe there is a very simple, yet difficult solution. Be principled, but kind. Stop reacting instantly to everything we see and hear. Take a step back. Each of us needs to think clearly about our own principles, to research the issues and find our own way through the muck, and to know and stand in our own values. Don't worry so much about the other guy, and quit working on layers and layers of assumptions. Instead, be clear about what's important for you and work to make your own vision a reality. Join groups doing work you admire, and bring your individual influence to bear with your elected officials. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that things will just automatically change because we as individuals begin to talk clearly with each other and search for solutions instead of endlessly dramatizing the problems. But I am suggesting that a democracy is only as strong as its citizenry; we are the ones who will find lasting and peaceful solutions to our problems. This is the path toward  the "more perfect union" we seek.